Sunday, May 28, 2017

Italy, Part 6: My Colored Pencil Breakthrough

5/12/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (left side of panorama)

Right side of panorama

When I was taking the colored pencil class at Gage (and the subsequent watercolor pencil class) from Suzanne Brooker, I learned many basic and intermediate drawing skills as well as techniques specific to colored pencil. While I hoped I was using improved drawing skills day to day, I was disappointed because I didn’t think I would be able to apply those colored pencil techniques to urban sketching. When you have many hours (and I mean many – like 8 to 10 per drawing) to work leisurely from a photo in the comfort of one’s studio, the results are bound to be more painterly and polished than working from life under constantly changing light and weather conditions and any number of other outdoor challenges. But those results are also bound to be less fresh (as I always felt about my photo-reference homework assignments).

You already saw this panorama in my post about Varenna and Lake Como, but I’m showing it again here (this time scanned so you can see more details). This sketch, made from the terrace of our hotel room, was a breakthrough for me because it was the first time I applied the colored pencil techniques I learned to an on-location sketch.

My secondary triad palette, from left: Caran d'Ache Supracolor - Russet (065),
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer - Terracotta (186), Caran d'Ache Museum (245),
Albrecht Durer - Deep Cobalt Green (158), Supracolor - Purple Violet (100),
Albrecht Durer - Delft Blue (141)

I already mentioned in that previous post that the Lake Como landscape was just begging for the secondary triad palette I was recently introduced to. Inspired by those colors, I contoured the mountains, used multiple layers of water-soluble pencils (dry/wet/dry/wet) to increase intensity and widen the value range, varied the degree of detail and texture to imply depth, used changes in hue for atmospheric perspective – all things I learned in class – and threw in my own wet-in-wet cloud tricks (using pencils only, not ink-filled waterbrushes). I am very happy with the way the sketch came out.

The 5½-by-17-inch spread in my Stillman & Birn Beta softcover sketchbook took just about an hour. That’s still longer than I would typically spend on a location sketch, especially while traveling, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable length of time to spend. I’m thrilled knowing that, when I choose to, I can apply all of those photo-reference techniques to drawing from life – which is, of course, the only kind of sketching that really makes me happy. Since finding a way to use colored pencil techniques on location has been my goal all along, this sketch feels like a personal triumph.

I was hoping to list “how to” points here (as a reminder to myself as well as for readers who might want to try it themselves), but I’m not sure I can distill the method into bullet points. I think it’s just that all the hours and hours I put into those photo-based homework assignments taught me to observe the landscape in ways I had never done before, and that close observation made it possible to convey depth and contours more effectively.

Why was I able to do this sketch in an hour when the homework assignments (most of which were smaller in size than this spread) took so much longer? I think that can be attributed not to anything I learned in class but to my experience as an urban sketcher. For the homework assignments, we generally reproduced whatever was in the reference photo (though we sometimes improved the composition if needed), trying to learn from whatever happened to be in the photo. (Believe me, I wouldn’t have chosen to draw entire meadows of grass or every wave in a water scene if they hadn’t been part of the assignment!) On location, however, I’m accustomed to editing out whatever doesn’t interest me or isn’t essential to telling the “story” of my sketch (the part I am interested in). There was a lot more in the scene at Lake Como that I could have put in, and if I had used a photo of the landscape to draw from, I might have been tempted to put “everything” in (though that’s hardly possible, even with hours of work). But being on location, I put in only what I really wanted to show, just as I always do.

Most of the time I still make urban sketches in my usual “coloring book” fashion – line drawings with spot color – because for me, it’s still the most expeditious way to capture a scene. But once in a while when I’m moved by a scene to spend the time on a more painterly approach, I know I can do it now with colored pencils. Even though I quietly whined that we only worked from photos, winter quarter at Gage and all those hours of homework was time well spent.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Folklife on the First Day of Summer

5/26/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils

OK, May 26 wasn’t officially the first day of summer, but as far as I’m concerned, the Pacific Northwest has skipped spring altogether!

UrbanSketchers Seattle celebrated the start of the outdoor sketching season at the 46th annual Northwest Folklife Festival. One of the last remaining donation-only music festivals in the country, Folklife has been a USk Friday event for at least a few times, but I guess I must have missed it in recent years, because the last time I went was in 2014. After having been away for several weeks, it was especially fun to join the other sketchers at this event, which is a field day for people who like to sketch people in action – especially buskers! And that would be me!

5/26/17 Warming up! Me, not them!
Despite all the sketching I got to do in Italy, I missed opportunities to sketch buskers there. (I’m thinking busking must be unlawful, because I saw only two the whole time.) Pulling out my sketchbook yesterday, I felt more than a little rusty when I started with the South American band (you can see me warming up as I started with the guitarist on the right and worked towards the left).

I felt a little warmer by the time I got to the young harpist (playing the Star Wars theme, a popular tune yesterday) and finally the didgeridoo player, with some practice in between on other musicians, a face painter, and a balloon man.
 
5/26/17 face painter


And speaking of warmer, we’re scheduled to have sunshine and temps in the low 80s the entire Memorial Day weekend, which is historically cool, wet and gray. It’s a long-deserved treat after a record-breaking soggy winter!


5/26/17 Young harpist
5/26/17 Balloon man waiting for customers

5/26/17 Jammin'
5/26/17 caricaturist

5/26/17 Relaxing in the grass, listening to music.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Italy, Part 5: Sketch Kit Follow-Up

Sketch materials I used most in Italy (and at home)
As I do after every major trip, in this post I take a look at the sketch kit I brought to Italy and review how well its contents worked for me. (You can see the detailed contents here.)
  • It’s no surprise that my most-often-used implements are the same as those I use most often every day (and used most often during my last international trip): a fistful of water-soluble colored pencils; a Sailor fude fountain pen filled with waterproof Platinum Carbon Black ink; a waterbrush filled with slightly diluted Iroshizuku Kiri-same ink (a warm gray that I used frequently for shading); and a Zig Mangaka (non-hairy) waterproof brush pen. Without actually counting, I’d say that 90 percent of my sketches were done with the combo of colored pencils, the fountain pen and the ink-filled waterbrush. I had expected to use the Mangaka brush pen regularly in the Field Notes notebook I brought along, and I did, but I also used it several times for larger sketches, too. (It’s currently my favorite non-hairy brush pen because the tip has held up a long time without mushing down as many do.)
  • I used every one of the 25 colored pencils I brought. Of course, I used some colors more than others (especially the secondary triad palette; more on that in a future post), but they all got used well. It was satisfying to know that I had chosen my palette well. The only specific pencil color I missed was the verdigris I found useful in France a couple years ago. The photos I had seen of regions in Italy we were visiting didn’t show much of that color on buildings and monuments like the ones we saw all over France, so I didn’t think I’d need it. I was able to mix it easily enough with the colors I had when I needed it, but it would have been a convenient pencil to bring along. (It’s going to become a permanent part of my European travel palette!)
Waterproof Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger
  • Speaking of colored pencils, it was a bit of a gamble taking my Tran Portfolio Pencil Case on the trip because I had been using it for only a couple of weeks. It was serving me well at home, but I still considered it unbroken-in. A worthwhile gamble, it turned out to be the single-most functional part of my sketch kit (in addition to the bag itself, of course, which is the waterproof version of the Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag). Whether standing or sitting, the pencil case made it so easy to see all my pencils and grab the ones I need.

    The Tran Portfolio Pencil Case -- the single-most functional part of my sketch kit.
  • I regretted that, at the last minute, I decided to fill the Sailor Cross Point fountain pen with Platinum Carbon Black instead of the water-soluble ink I had initially planned on. My logic was that I always use waterproof ink with water-soluble colored pencils and generally use water-soluble ink only when I want quick shading on sketches of people or small objects, so I felt better having the second waterproof-ink filled pen as a backup. But the few times that I sketched people or small objects, I really missed having water-soluble ink and the quick washes it makes. My daily-carry bag always contains at least one pen of each ink type, so I should have stayed with the tried-and-true.
  • I had swapped out a second Sailor fude for the Sailor with the broader Cross Point nib, which I thought would be an interesting option when doing larger scenes (like those cliffside houses in Positano). It gives me a bolder line than the fude, but not quite as broad as a brush pen. I did have fun with it several times, but the Cross Point just isn’t as versatile as a fude.

    Filled in Italy (from left to right, top to bottom): Field Notes notebook,
    pocket-size Rhodiarama journal, A5 size Stillman & Birn softcover
    landscape-format Beta sketchbook, three 6x9 signatures
    (to be handbound soon)
  • On previous trips of about the same duration, I’ve typically filled five to seven of my usual 16-page, 6-by-9-inch sketchbook signatures, so halfway through our trip, I was surprised to find that I was filling them at half the usual pace – and yet it didn’t seem like I was sketching less. (I ended up filling three of those signatures.) That’s because the dark horse of my sketch kit turned out to be my landscape-format Stillman & Birn Beta softcover sketchbook! I realize now that I didn’t even include it in my bag dump post because I think of it as an optional supplement to my standard sketchbook, and sometimes I don’t have room for it. Wherever I go, I often find one or two uses for a long, skinny sketchbook spread, so it’s nice to have, but not essential. I sure wasn’t expecting to make 12 full landscape spreads in that sketchbook in Italy! Whether held vertically or horizontally, I used it for both hillside scenes and panoramic skylines. It was more essential than I realized! (It bothers me a little that I now have some of my favorite sketches from the trip in a separate sketchbook that won’t be bound into my main Italy sketchbook, but I guess I can’t have it both ways.)

    Just a few moments captured in my Field Notes.
  • An important supplement to my main sketchbook continues to be my Field Notes notebook. This time I chose a multi-colored one that a friend made for me by disassembling red, blue and yellow Sweet Tooth books and reassembling the pages so that the page colors alternated. It was perfect for Italy’s candy-colored landscape! This little book, which takes so well to black brush pens highlighted with a white gel pen, was essential for sketches that I had only a few minutes for – a snoozing cat; a detail of an interesting water feature; fellow train travelers. I use one regularly in my “normal” life too, but it’s especially useful on the go. The small, informal format is ideal for capturing the small moments that might otherwise get lost because they aren’t the big scenes I tend to look for when I travel.
  • The only items I didn’t use at all were the two graphite pencils. I had a feeling that would be the case – I rarely sketch with graphite except in the colorless winter months – but they weigh almost nothing in my bag, so I had left them in. I might as well take them out until winter.
    Sketching in Bellagio on my Daiso stool.
  • My little Daiso stool made it into my suitcase, and on at least a couple of occasions, I was happy to have it. As usual, I chose to stand when making most sketches, mainly because I got a better view or composition that way. But at certain times a lower viewpoint was useful, and the stool made sketching much easier.
  • Although it’s not related to the sketch materials I brought, I did have one disappointment: Despite our water-focused itinerary, I didn’t get close enough to any body of water (lake, sea or canal) to fill a waterbrush. I had fun incorporating ancient Roman spring water from Bath and the Pacific Ocean from L.A. into my sketches when I had filled waterbrushes from those sources on previous trips, but trying to dip into a Venice canal seemed precarious at best (maybe I should have befriended a gondolier for the task?).
  • Also technically not part of the sketch kit but worth mentioning is the Rhodia Rhodiarama pocket-size notebook I used as my journal. I’ve used these sturdy, hardcover notebooks as travel journals for several years now, and they continue to serve me well as a receptacle for writing, collage and Zip printer photos. (I used to also make small sketches in them, but now I use the Field Notes for that.) During downtime while riding trains or in our hotel room or flat in the evenings, I enjoyed reflecting on my experiences, gluing in ticket stubs and receipts and printing out one or two favorite photos from the day’s explorations to stick into the journal.

Key Learnings

  • When in doubt, stick to my usual daily-carry materials (such as two Sailor fude pens, one with water-soluble ink and the other with waterproof). If they serve me well day-to-day, there’s no reason to think I’d need something different just because I’m traveling.
A versatile secondary triad palette
  • I carefully selected a useful colored pencil palette, especially the secondary triad part of it. I like it so much that I think it might be versatile enough to use here in little ol’ Seattle as well as Italy. I’m going to leave the selection in my bag for a while and see how it does at home.
  • I now realize a landscape-format sketchbook is an essential part of my travel sketch kit – not an optional supplement – because I can’t always predict when a particular location is going to be well-suited for a long, skinny page. I’m happier than ever that Stillman & Birn came out with a softcover version that packs well.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Italy, Part 4: Venice

5/18/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils (The canal and bridge outside our Venice flat)

I’m still ambivalent about Venice. On our visit in 2006, we spent too few days trying to see too many museums and other wildly popular attractions, so all I remember of it was fighting crowds, being lost and feeling frustrated. We wanted this year’s visit to be different, and it definitely was – except for San Marco Square, we avoided all high-traffic areas – and yet I can’t say I wholeheartedly love Venice. A sinking city of canals where boats serve as buses and stunning architecture is on every corner: It’s hard not to be fascinated by such a place, and I was. And yet I wanted it to be easier to appreciate all that old beauty and history. Maybe we just didn’t stay long enough to get past the confusion of vaporetto routes and mazes of narrow streets. Or maybe we were just getting tired at the end of our 18 days abroad.

One thing I did very much appreciate was staying in a flat in a quiet campo in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, which is off the beaten tourist path. A nearby art college brought lots of young people carrying portfolios back and forth through the campo, which gave the neighborhood a creative, youthful energy. Literally a few steps from our flat was a tiny art supply shop (I bought a small box of colored pencils there, just on principle)!

5/17/17 Santa Maria Della Salute and Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge

5/17/17 Basilica di San Marco
One day we ventured out to San Marco Square, perhaps the single-most crowded spot in Venice at any given moment. Of course, I was ambivalent, but like an urban sketcher lemming, I was also driven to make the iconic sketch. Compared to the mobs seen at high summer, we experienced only the “shoulder” crowd – I actually found a space on the steps opposite Basilica di San Marco.

This is the scene I was trying to see (sketched above):


This is the scene I saw most of the time:


 Although I don’t regret going to San Marco and making the sketch, it was a relief to retreat to “our” ‘hood, and that’s where we both spent many happy hours sketching and photographing the quieter parts of Venice. In particular, I enjoyed going around to the back sides of buildings where all the wires and antennae were tucked away from the postcard views.

5/16/17 Dorsoduro neighborhood
5/18/17 Dorsoduro neighborhood

5/16/17 "Our" campo in the Dorsoduro neighborhood

A minor canal was just outside our flat, so I sketched it twice from different angles. One of my fondest memories of Venice was sketching the commuter traffic in and around the canal (sketch at top of post) in the cool, early-morning air, the sky a brilliant blue, all within sight of our flat’s kitchen window (in other words, not far enough away to get lost).

5/16/17 The canal outside our flat

5/17/17 chimney pots in Dorsoduro




In all the small towns we visited prior to Venice, my landscape-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook spent most of its time opened vertically to accommodate cliffside villages or narrow alley views. In Venice, I could finally turn the book horizontally to make two panoramic sketches of the Giudecca Canal with three iconic churches on the skyline. My intention was to put the whole panorama on one sketchbook spread, drawing from west to east, but halfway across my intended skyline, I ran out of space! I continued on a second spread, covering as much of the skyline as I could see. Someday if I ever learn to stitch images in Photoshop, I’ll put them together into a single image.

5/18/17 Guidecca Canal, part 1

5/18/17 Guidecca Canal, part 2

5/17/17 gondolier passing under a bridge

5/17/17 glass harp busker near San Marco


Bridge of Sighs


I can’t talk about Venice without mentioning Arcobaleno (“rainbow”), the art supply shop. When I say “art supply shop,” I’m not talking about your average Blick store! This shop’s main product is paint pigments for artists who want to make and mix their own paints. I’d seen Internet photos of its window of eye candy – a spectrum of powdered pigments – and I had to see it for myself! With Joan’s help, I was able to find the shop in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, where I bought a handmade leather pencil wrap and a tube of colored pencils covered in hand-marbled paper. As I was making my purchases, I asked the shopkeeper about the second Arcobaleno shop, which I knew was somewhere near San Marco. She gave me directions, and I found that one, too. (It’s slightly larger and offers crystals and other colorful, mystical materials in addition to art supplies.)

Eye candy at Arcobaleno


This is what I bought at the "candy" store: a leather pencil roll and a cylinder of
colored pencils covered with hand-marbled paper.

Speaking of eye candy, Venice’s retail streets are nothing but. I resisted buying, but I got more than my fill ogling the “candy” with my camera.

More Venice eye candy

And speaking of sweets, I can’t end my last post about Italy without mentioning gelato. I’ll spare you the daily Instagram postings of our flavors of the day and just give you a taste here. At least I’m not showing you all the pizza, pasta and salads we also consumed. All those steps we walked (Greg’s Fitbit hit 10,000 steps by mid-day each day) and stairs we climbed (an average of 315 flights per week) had to be fueled by something.



(For more photos and sketches from Italy, please see this album in my Flickr photostream.)


Stay tuned for my travel sketch kit review and my colored pencil breakthrough.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Italy, Part 3: Varenna and Lake Como

5/12/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (Lake Como from Varenna)

Lake Como and the villages surrounding it, commonly referred to as the Lakes District, was our third itinerary stop, with the town of Varenna as our home base. We had initially talked about seeing more of the lake’s towns, but we loved Varenna so much that we ended up spending most of our time there (except for a short excursion to Bellagio, which turned out to be too commercial for our taste).

5/14/17 ink, colored pencils (Varenna alley)
Shortly before I left for Italy, I had been introduced to the secondary triad palette in my colored pencil class. Italy’s landscape seemed ideal for giving it a try, so I built my colored pencil selection for the trip around the palette. My first morning in Varenna, I walked out onto our hotel room’s terrace, looked out at the view of Lake Como, and knew that the palette had been made for this scene: blue-violet mountains, lush green trees and the terracotta rooftops of the surrounding villages. I’m going to talk more about the sketch above in a separate post, but for now I’ll just say that it was my colored pencil breakthrough.

Like Positano and the Cinque Terre towns, Varenna and Bellagio are filled with steep, narrow streets and alleys. By then I had gotten used to turning my landscape-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook vertically to sketch those street views so exotic to me. The most fun to draw were the ones with buildings on both sides of a long, steep stairway leading down to the water. We spent most of our time in Varenna simply exploring the nooks and crannies of the town. Wherever we walked, I looked down openings between buildings to peek at those fantastic views that ended at the lake.

5/13/17 ink, colored pencils (Varenna town square)
We also spent time just hanging out in the town square observing the locals taking la passeggiata, catching up with their neighbors. Because of the narrow streets, motorcycles and scooters were a practical mode of transportation, and we always found lots of them parked in the piazza.

5/14/17 brush pen, ink, colored pencils

5/12/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils (town of Varenna and Lake Como)

5/14/17 Varenna

5/13/17 Varenna

5/13/17 Basilica in Bellagio
5/13/17 water feature on a Bellagio monument

Varenna is where I sketched my first busker of the whole trip – a man playing accordion in a pedestrian tunnel. (I sketched only one other busker later in Venice. I’m wondering if Italy has laws against busking; I was disappointed not to see more.)


On our last day at Lake Como, we visited Varenna’s cemetery. Although many of the old tombstones were tempting to sketch, I chose a large one with the Italian flag next to it.


5/14/17 Varenna cemetery
5/13/17 busker in Varenna

5/13/17 street in Bellagio

Lake Como from the ferry to Bellagio

Orange trees everywhere!

Varenna cemetery



Lake Como was difficult to leave; I kept wishing we had scheduled a few more days there. But our final destination was Venice, and that’s another Italian location I had been wanting to sketch for a long time . . .

(For more photos and sketches from Italy, please see this album in my Flickr photostream.)
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